Tag Archives: mind

174. Our Education Affects “Reasoning” Ability

8 Jun

I was recently reminded of a problem in education: that children (and adults) are actually trained in what I call “magical thinking.” The reminder was a recent TED talk by Kate Bowler, entitled “Everything happens for a reason” — and other lies I’ve loved.  Many people could benefit from her illuminating piece.

Most of us are trained in various types of magical thinking. Examples are that life has “purpose” and “meaning” and that our actions should be guided by pleasing a higher power.  This is supported by the fact that ANXIETY is so much a part of our biological makeup. We create comforting attitudes to decrease our fears. Like many others, Kate Bowler‘s magical thinking was not questioned until faced with a horrible disease;  she got cancer. The bottom line is that this kind of thinking generally makes us feel better, and so is reinforced, just like we eat to avoid hunger and drink to avoid thirst, we pursue faulty thinking to avoid anxiety.

Being highly educated and logical is more difficult than “magic,” but it also works, and we are not so shocked when bad things happen. My solution is better education, which emphasizes logic and science. Many people have found joy in really understanding how the world works. When you study the origins of the Universe and the origins of life, science helps in understanding these issues. We don’t have final and exact answers for these “origins” but what is known suggests plausible explanations. When the above author, Kate Bowler, was young, what if some authority figure had asked her this question: how can you be sure of your beliefs and understanding of life? Where is the evidence? What are the details? Can we live without unsupported beliefs and just focus on what is observable and logical? (Note, although logic and science are important, I also recognize the role of love, kindness, sports, arts, music and other human factors.)

Along these same lines, I would ask this question: can we really make decisions and think in ways that are truly independent? Or, are we totally controlled by our original structure (DNA, etc.), all of our learning experience, and various environmental influences? For most people, beliefs are learned from parents, teachers, religious leaders, and/or peers — and regardless of events, may persist for entire lives.


160. Trump: Early Signs of Dementia

3 Apr

Being an older person and a psychologist, I have spent many hours studying “dementia” and Alzheimer’s disease. First, to clarify, “dementia” is a description of (mostly behavioral) symptoms, and Alzheimer’s is a disease of brain cells that can cause dementia symptoms. Dementia is not a sudden thing, but generally comes on gradually.  Minor symptoms may appear at 60 or 70 and increase with age so that there are severe deficits starting at 85 or 90. Some people never develop significant symptoms. (Recent research shows that a lack of sleep can make Alzheimer’s worse).  Here is a good reference on the whole topic:


Also look at “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, By Bandy Lee MD”  It includes  27 essays by psychiatrists who provide diagnoses.

What triggered this blog was an interaction today of Trump with journalists on the occasion of a meeting with a Nato official. He suggested that the media look into the “oranges” of the Mueller investigation (he meant “origins”). He was also confused about the birthplace of his father. These errors, and many others, if you look carefully at him, are consistent with early-warning signs of dementia.

Here are some of the symptoms of early dementia:

Memory loss, especially short-term. An example might be when he forgot the reason for firing FBI Director Comey.

Difficulty finding the right words.  No clear example.

Apathy and confusion. In long speeches the disorganization suggests confusion.

Difficulty following storylines and conversing. Not clear

Difficulty following instructions and finding landmarks.

Repetition is common because of memory loss. This happens often for Trump

Difficulty in adapting to change. One could speculate that changing from a campaign mode to being president was hard for him.

REPETITION AND MEMORY LOSS ARE MOST APPARENT.  Some of his errors may be due to confusion or memory loss — or they could just be lies or poor scholarship.

I think he would consider resigning except that he would then be vulnerable to prosecution for crimes.









116. Brain Complexity

5 Jul

In my Blog-114, I provide some information on brain micro-structure:
“Our nervous system is composed of billions of nerves with around 150 trillion interconnections called synapses, and other connection variations. Further, each synapse (which functions like a transistor) has a complicated and variable structure. The nerve cells, their branching structures, and connections, provide all of our simple and complex behaviors.”

In my study of neuron science, I often see proposals and conjectures
regarding total brain simulations, and even the transfer of stored brain info
to a gigantic computer as a way of prolonging life. One speculator proposes that a person’s intellect could continue after death.

My study of all these conjectures suggests that the writers do not
appreciate the size and levels of brain complexity. My assessment is that
our current and future knowledge will not be capable of producing any
such copying or sizable transfer. Perhaps in 400 or 500 years different viewpoints will be more acceptable.

What follows is a further description and clarification of brain complexity.

A computer has transistors, diodes, resistors, conducting wires and other electronic components that function in concert to provide logic, control,
computation, sensory systems, memory, and information transfer over a

Analogous systems in the brain are various types of connections between
nerve cells, and elongated cell structures (axons) that are like transmission
wires. The electrical pulse that is mostly used for communication over a distance
is the “action potential.”

I could include, here, a few relevant pictures, but to really see most of
the known variations just use your browser to search “nerve cells” and also
“gap junctions.” (click “images” at top of page). Many of the pictures are
very current and show an amazing variety of structures.

There are two types of connection: chemical (synapses) and electrical (gap-junctions). The terminology can be a little inconsistent but the principles are clear. Neurons have (separate) sending and receiving points. For cells A and B to communicate, a sending point (terminal) of cell A must be in very close proximity to a receiving point (receptor site) for cell B. If the connection is a chemical synapse then the sending point of cell A sends transmitter chemicals across the gap to neuron B receptor. Sending is triggered by an electrical signal (action potential) that causes the release of a chemical (transmitter). The receiving point (or receptor) generates a transmittable signal when enough transmitter is received. Transmission can be excitatory (producing action potentials) or inhibitory (preventing action potentials). Some examples of common neuro-transmitters are acetylcholine, epinephrine, GABA, ATP, and Serotonin. There are about 25 different known transmitters.

Electrical connections between nerve cells operate similarly, except that the
excitation is more direct and transmitter chemicals are not used. Gap junctions
mediate electrical excitation by opening gates that allow the passage of ions.
Ions are tiny charged particles (atoms or molecules) that function in transmission. There can also be transferred electrical excitation without specific gap-junction structures, if parts of cells are making actual contact.

Further functioning (and more complexity) is related to the number of sending points that simultaneously contact a single receptor. A single nerve cell (neuron) could have hundreds of sending and receiving contacts and direct ommunication with many other cells.

Another layer of complexity is that there are many transmitter chemicals and countless substances that can affect the transmitters and the transmission process. Some of these excitatory or inhibitory substances in the brain are there naturally, and can depend on what you eat and your activities. There are also a multitude of drugs that can affect transmission in a multitude of ways.

All animal brains have specific structures and a very sophisticated organization.
Synaptic receptor sites (the receiving points) can have a variety of properties
depending on DNA coding and also actual usage. The extent of excitation by
sending points (pre-synaptic terminals) can be relatively fixed or variable.
In some situations, receiving points (postsynaptic sites) can produce a stream
of action potentials, or just one or two. If a synapse is used repeatedly,
transmission could be enhanced or inhibited, depending on a number of
temporal and chemical factors. Depending on usage, a receptor site could
store information that alters its performance — a “memory” function.

From the discussion above, you can see that there are numerous devices in
the brain that function as “logic.” The brain has common “and-gates”,
“or-gates”, “nor-gates” and many other types of gating to use in programming all of the fantastic abilities we enjoy. Much of the logic used by our brains is similar to that used in our computers. But brain logic has a far greater variation and is
really a combination of digital and analog systems. Information in a computer
is generally a universal pulse of a fixed voltage. In brains, information takes many forms including pulses, graded potentials, ion movements, and the presence or absence of a great number of chemicals. In computers, memory is achieved by manipulating magnetic and electrical properties of tiny bits of matter. In brains, some methods of storage are known and others are the subject of reasearch. It is likely that much of memory has to do with long-term facilitation (or inhibition) in synaptic transfer. There is much research on molecular structures that are altered to provide long-term information storage.

Imagine trying to construct something like a biological synapse with all
the properties described above. Your constructed synapse could have a hundred excitatory and inhibitory inputs, with several different transmitter chemicals. The receptor site should be able to produce a variety of action potential rates and be capable of changes related to memory. Even the construction of one
complete synapse would be very difficult. Imagine trying to create a human
brain with 150 trillion synapses with a variety of properties, AND with an
extremely complicated and as yet unknown organization.

Scientific brain research is valuable and should be continued. But productive
lines of inquiry should be promoted while most unrealistic speculation should be
ignored or presented as science fiction.

How did this extremely complicated biological computer system called a brain
develop? In a future blog I will deal with this question.

4. Consciousness?

1 Apr

Sam Harris is a well known author, who wrote several books critical of religion.  I think Harris is a courageous and excellent writer in that area.   When talking about religion and some other topics, he is logical, scientific and reasonable.

My comments here were inspired by a talk (distributed by email 3-29-12) by Harris on “Free Will”,  based on his latest book. After the talk, a member of the audience asserts that “consciousness is an illusion.”

Here is an almost verbatim representation of what Harris said in response:

    “It depends on what you mean by consciousness.
   What I mean is: consciousness is the one thing that can’t be an illusion.
   Consciousness is the fact of experience. The fact that something is
   happening, the fact that the lights are on” … “Even if I am the brain in a bat
   what I am calling consciousness is a manifest fact of reality, and is the basis
   for every other fact that I would experience.”

This verbage inspired me to discuss in detail, at last, a long standing issue.
When Harris talks about psychology,  he throws science and reasoning aside and sounds more like a preacher than a scientist. In other writings, he promotes religion-based meditation as a method of relaxation training rather than therapy methods developed from scientific investigation.

Here is the problem with his use of the word “consciousness.” As Harris uses
it, it is strictly a layman’s term and of no use in science. One of the most fundamental features of science is the use of carefully and effectively defined terms.

P. W. Bridgman, in his famous book: The Logic of Modern Physics (1959),
advocates careful attention to definitions and the use of definitions that can
be expressed in terms of “operations.” For example, in behavioral science,
you can define “hunger” as 24 hours of food deprivation (with some additional
details). Such a definition is clear and promotes effective communication.  Another such definition is: a “meter” is the length of the path travelled by light in a vacuum during a very small, specified time interval: 1 over 299,792,458 sec. The definition is expressed in terms of conditons and operations. It is universally understood and used in laboratories by physicists all over the world.

Harris says that by “consciousness” he means “The fact of experience. The fact
that something is happening, the fact that the lights are on, etc …. ”   But, where is consciousness, how is it measured? Is it an action, a state, or a condition ??
Nothing is clear about this term as Harris uses it; why do we need it at all?

The definition is in fact circular: “consciousness is experience”,  or you could say “experience is consciousness”, its “things happening.”  Or “consciousness is the perception of reality”, and “reality is what the consciousness perceives.” Many words in common use, do not advance understanding. I have listened to many neuroscientists and biologists lecturing on subjects involving psychology, making this same mistake.

Behavioral science was developed through discussions over the course of centuries, where introspection and other loose methodology was rejected. One of the most important principles of science is that what is observed, must be observable by more than one person, and it must be replicable.  Harris’ instrospection is only observable by Harris, and every person who introspects is subject to this same dilema. Each person who studies his own brain is making the same mistake.

Psychology and neuroscience do better when working with measurable behaviors, recordable speech, and clearly defined physiological actions and structures. Harris looks out at the world using his brain and eyes, etc. and assumes that he can understand a system that he is a part of. Proper science uses clearly defined stimuli, conditions, and behaviors and events, and in doing so, progresses. A group of scientists and scientists in different laboratories can study individuals of a species and make replicable findings.

Although perhaps not the best approach,  Harris  could  have  said  that consciousness is a state in which an individual responds in specified ways to specified stimuli. The stimuli and responses can be expressed in exact ways, so that the word has meaning. A person is “unconscious” if responses are attenuated in certain ways.  Harris basically says that consciousness is reality (as he perceives it).  Although he would deny this,  his concept of consciousness lends support to the idea of an entity –a “soul” or “mind”– that sees and understands that “the lights are on.”  Of course, there is no scientific evidence that this entity exists. We only know that people do and say things, and that their bodies have physiological events.

Finally, when Harris (who does so well in other areas) uses “mentalistic” terms like “consciousness”, he actually opens up the door to ideas like the existence “free will.”  Hard science is clearly deterministic — who knows about the “mind”.